May 22, 2012
Nosson Avrohom in #835, Feature, army

It was a long process before R’ Refael Shuval changed his life and became a Chassid. Hashgacha pratis prevented him from reaching the front line outpost on Har Dov and kept him on a base near his home where he began reaching out to soldiers. The results: three became Lubavitchers, some soldiers became part of other religious groups, and others were strengthened in their Judaism in general. * In honor of Shavuos, the holiday that marks Kabbalas ha’Torah, we had a conversation with R’ Refael and his three Lubavitchers and discussed their life stories and thoughts, and the ups and downs that they experienced in their personal Kabbalas ha’Torah. * Part 1

“I sent the other soldiers who came along with me to hide, while I entered the alley, exposing myself to a volley of rocks. Window panes broke, but not one rock hit me. I clearly felt that Hashem was protecting me. Two UN teams that came to investigate were immediately stoned and they quickly fled.”It was 5761. R’ Refael Shuval, a Lubavitcher Chassid and teacher from Tzfas, was called up for Reserve duty. It was a Shmita year and the lack of food with a proper hechsher is the reason the commanders decided to leave him behind on a rear military base and not have him join the rest of his comrades who went to Har Dov on the Lebanese border. The base that he was on was located next to the police station in Tzfas, only a few meters away from his home.

The result of three weeks of service was a general strengthening of Judaism on base. Many men began putting on t’fillin every day and eventually, three of them became Lubavitcher Chassidim: Yair Burstein of Tzfas, Nadav Frindlander of Haifa, and Shai Choresh of Netanya.


First, we wanted to hear Refael’s story. He was born in Netanya and was given a government-religious education. His mother came from that sort of background while his father came from a more religious home.

“Co-education, which consisted of religious values along with a liberal attitude, confused me. When I graduated the religious Tachkemoni school and went to an irreligious high school, I was already anti-Judaism. As far as values went, I knew the religious school was better, but from a religious perspective I found it very confusing. The classes were mixed and there was a shocking lack of tznius, and yet we had to wear tzitzis and a kippa and they spoke about keeping Shabbos.

“When I went to the army, I was absolutely anti-religious. I believed that anyone who felt like it could call himself a ‘rabbi’ and talk about lofty things. However, during my army service there were some instances in which I felt that I was reverting back to Judaism. The first time was when we visited the Meoras HaMachpeila before serving in Chevron. I was a young commander. I remember that I felt inexplicably inspired, an elevated feeling that is difficult to describe in words.

“The next time was when the Arabs set up an ambush for the jeep belonging to my unit. The ambush was prepared in a narrow alley with vehicles blocking both the entrance and the exit. The Arabs began throwing stones at the soldiers. I was called to go out there and extricate the soldiers. I sent the other soldiers who came along with me to hide under store awnings and I entered the alley, exposing myself to a volley of rocks. Window panes broke, but not one rock hit me. I clearly felt that Hashem was protecting me. Two UN teams that came to investigate were immediately stoned and they quickly fled.

“There was yet another incident that got me thinking. It was during my service in Rafiach. During Chanuka, a Chabad tank came to our post. We were in full body armor, and they just came as they were, fearlessly and with lots of simcha. I wondered what motivated them to come to Rafiach, to endanger themselves, in order to bring us joy.

“I left the army a little less anti-religious than when I went in. A year and a half after I finished my army duty, I had a good job in high-tech, and a life that every discharged soldier dreams of, and yet I felt a sense of emptiness. I flew off to Australia because I felt that as long as I did not find peace of mind, I could not stop searching. In Sydney I met the shluchim, R’ Yitzchok Akselrod, R’ Sender Cohen, and R’ Reuven Kupchik. I enjoyed the atmosphere they created. I quickly became very involved and began learning with them, and then I realized that Judaism has plenty of depth. I understood that what I thought of as Judaism was only the tip of the iceberg.

“When I returned home to my parents in Netanya, I kept up my connection with Chabad through R’ Nesanel Dreyfus. Two years after I returned home, I became a Chassid and got married.”


In 5761, Refael was learning in kollel when he was called up for Reserve duty. He was supposed to stay with his unit for a day or two on the base in Tzfas, and after collecting the necessary equipment, they were to head for Har Dov, close to the Lebanese border. There they would replace a unit from which three soldiers had been kidnapped not long before.

The problem was that it was a Shmita year and the commanders, despite their efforts, were unable to guarantee him kosher food with a superior hechsher. They suggested that Refael remain behind on the base in Tzfas to boost the base security. In any case, more than enough soldiers had shown up for the Reserves, more than had been anticipated. So Refael did his Reserve duty close to home.

When I asked Refael how he ended up becoming a full time shliach, he said:

“When I realized that I was on an open base from where I could leave whenever I wanted, without passes and without the tension that characterizes serving on the border, I decided I would devote every minute to shlichus.

“There were two things that helped me. In my previous position in the army, I commanded a tough bunch of undisciplined soldiers. Every commander who started out with them opted to leave. Before I accepted the position, I decided not to order my subordinates to do things that annoyed me when I was a soldier. This approach sounded naïve to some of the commanders but it worked beautifully. I had a good rapport with the soldiers, and instead of trying to outsmart me they cooperated and did whatever they were told to do.

“The other thing that helped me in shlichus was, when I was at the Chabad house in Sydney, before I left for home, one of the shluchim convinced me to go to yeshiva. I didn’t want to go, but he kept urging me until I concluded that he was right. However, by that point he had stopped asking me. He decided that it was futile, and it ended up taking me more time until I took this step. Yet, I was convinced that if he had persisted, I would have implemented it much sooner.

“When I thought about this, I decided that when it came to mivtzaim, it would make no difference to me who he was and how stubborn he would be, I would never give up on anyone. I adopted these two approaches and they work well for me.”


We asked to hear the stories of the other three men before they encountered R’ Shuval. We started with Yair Burstein who is a melamed in a Chabad school in Tzfas, and a shliach in yishuv B’nei Yehuda in the Golan Heights. Yair was born in Raanana. He moved with his family to Kfar Saba and Ariel and finally settled in moshav Ne’ot Golan.

“In our home there was a lot of respect for tradition, but nothing more.”

The second soldier was Nadav Frindlander who lives in Haifa and is the accounting department director for the bakery chain Minchas Ha’Aretz. He was born in the Neve Shaanan neighborhood in Haifa.

“I did not grow up in an anti-religious home but it wasn’t particularly religious either. We had zero knowledge of Judaism. Neve Shaanan is known as an irreligious place where academics and people in non-traditional professions live. The values we grew up with were intellectualism, intellectualism, and more intellectualism. In my youth, I began feeling something was lacking and took an interest in spirituality.

“I did not believe that true spirituality can be found within Judaism and I searched for it in Eastern religions. I read a lot about the East and found it interesting. I was drafted as a combat engineer. For the first time I met soldiers who were anti-religion. I became friends with the kibbutznikim in the group and heard harsh things about Judaism and religious people, and I adopted this perspective as my own. The year that I served was the year that Israel withdrew from Lebanon, a move I strongly supported. I was what they call an ardent Leftist. I also believed that we had to get out of the so-called settlements right away. I felt I was serving a few crazies. Nobody understood why the settlers chose to spend their lives among thousands of hostile Arabs. In the middle of my army service I took an officers’ course but dropped out two weeks before it was over. After the fact, I know it was all divine providence so that I would end up at the base in Tzfas.

“Since I had taken a command level course, I was appointed as intelligence group commander on base. It was my responsibility to know the location of all explosives, to report on all unusual happenings, mines and fortifications. One of the attendant responsibilities of this position was oversight over the soldiers assigned to guard the base.

“In this position, I got to know Shai and Yair who were also guards. We spent entire nights together. Every now and then, they would send us reservists to beef up security and that is how R’ Shuval joined us. Every morning, he would circulate among the soldiers with t’fillin. I refused him day after day. I felt respect for mysticism and spirituality, but not for religion. I would tell him, ‘I don’t need t’fillin in order to be connected to G-d.’ Refael continued asking me until I gave in.

“I felt that I couldn’t keep on refusing someone who went around with a smile and loved everyone. As soon as I put on t’fillin, all the ice in me melted. The barriers fell and we began to talk and debate. Immediately afterward, we were together on long night watches during which we had lively discussions about the meaning of life and the role of a Jew in the world.”

The third soldier, Shai Choresh, works as a naturopath in a big health food store where he gives advice to customers. He was born in yishuv Mitzpeh Hila, where Gilad Shalit grew up.

“The yishuv is very Left leaning and anti-religious, but in our home there was in fact a little tradition. We observed the separation of milk and meat to the best of our knowledge, we believed in a Creator, and fasted on Yom Kippur. There is a shul now on the yishuv, following the wave of spiritual awakening that has taken place there. My father, who also became a baal t’shuva, built the shul.

“Before I joined the army I traveled a lot. I wasn’t a kid who learned. I left school before all my classmates. I worked half a year and spent the rest of the time traveling. I was in many countries in the East and even in Moslem countries like Indonesia, but never encountered Chabad. The first time I heard about Chabad was from a neighbor on our yishuv who said that in 5753 he had seen the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and his Chassidim are sure he is Moshiach. I had no idea what he was talking about.

“My first encounter with the Rebbe was in the army. In the guard booth I saw a picture of the Rebbe. I looked at it for a long time and thought – how beautiful, what a shining face, what penetrating eyes. He must be someone very special. Until then, I did not know who the Rebbe is and what he looked like.

“I noticed R’ Shuval and asked him whether he had put up the picture. He smiled and admitted it was he. I saw he was surprised to hear how impressed I was by the picture and that is how our relationship began.”

Rafi (Refael): I remember that. On Sunday I showed up at the base and decided to begin by putting up a picture of the Rebbe at the entrance. When I walked in the next day, a soldier, Shai, asked me who I was and whether I had put up the picture. I thought he was going to lecture me about the law which says it is illegal to hang up anything in the booth of the base guard, but instead, he simply told me how impressed he was by the picture. By his appearance, he seemed connected to nothing, and yet, the picture of the Rebbe had impressed him.”


Irreligious people generally have many stereotypes and fears about religious Jews. How did you become friends?

Yair: I became friendly with him because he spoke from the heart and he told me the truth. There are many people who talk to you and you feel that they are saying “A” but thinking “B.” I remember how one time, he took me aside for a conversation. My great love is music, and at that time I was very into hard rock. He explained to me how music has the power to influence the soul and if I listen to music written by a crazy gentile, it has an effect on me. He said this without sugarcoating it.

Nadav: My connection with him began through t’fillin, as I mentioned. It continued because although he was religious and had a hat and beard, he was a soldier like me, had served in the army and was now doing Reserve duty too. What complaint could I have against him? What really impressed me was that everything he said, he said from the heart. I saw he was a serious guy.

Shai: I grew up in a place where we were taught to love everyone and not to judge people based on origin, nationality etc. except if you were talking about a religious Jew. I took it one step further. I even accepted someone if he was a Chabad Chassid. In my heart of hearts I always respected Judaism.

Do you remember those conversations you had when you were on duty all night?

Rafi: I was learning in kollel and I tried to come every day with an interesting sicha from the Rebbe. There are sichos in volumes one to four that are easy to understand, yet pack a powerful message. Our conversations were mostly about Judaism and faith, questions that bothered me before I became religious, and I knew the answers well. Questions in the Rebbe’s sichos have clear answers.

Yair: Rafi spoke to us straight. I myself did not do t’shuva because of intellectual reasons. I simply felt that the things he was saying were pure. He was very sincere and loved people, and he wanted to connect and befriend us. You could feel this in every conversation. That is what attracted me. I felt that beyond the nice words and the deep messages, he had a way of life that I wanted to know about and that, when the time came, I wanted to be a part of. He wasn’t a rabbi and we weren’t his students; we were all friends.

Nadav: I would talk to him a lot about G-d. Questions like, who says the connection with G-d can only be if I observe mitzvos? Or, who says that G-d is ours and doesn’t belong to some other religion? The topic of shleimus ha’aretz came up a lot, with me taking the extreme Left position. Today, in hindsight, I feel that G-d sent me the right person to influence me. Rafi is as straight as a ruler. He answered my questions clearly.

There are lots of people whom I know who are hypocrites. If you were to debate them, they would come around to your view and the discussion would end peacefully. R’ Shuval was consistent. He would say, “This is the truth, do you want it or not?” He knew how to sell the truth in a way that made me feel that he was truly right.

Shai: I was very involved in Eastern teachings. I was very drawn to them from when I was a young boy. When I toured the Far East at age 18, I researched it even more. When I went to the army and they placed me in Tzfas, the subject of mysticism became even more palpable. Tzfas is a mystical city. However, Judaism was missing from this whole process until I met R’ Shuval. In our talks together, we spoke a lot about Chassidus and supernal s’firos as explained in Tanya.

One day, he brought me a Tanya and there, in chapter one, we learned about the four elements: fire, water, earth, wind. I remembered that in Eastern religions, they speak of five elements and this is the difference between holiness and the “other side.” I suddenly began to understand that Judaism contains everything I was learning outside of it, and in a clearer fashion. I had never learned Torah before, and when I finally got it, I kept studying it until I believed that Torah is true and I was living a life of falsehood. It took three years until I translated this insight into action.

R’ Shuval, what did you do so as not to turn them off?

Rafi: I did everything without pressure. You can put t’fillin on someone without pressuring him. It’s important to maintain a decent appearance and to speak pleasantly, to show that you care. I once appeared at the guard post and saw they had forgotten to bring lunch to the soldier. First I went to get him lunch and only then did I suggest that he put on t’fillin. As the Rebbe Rayatz says, do a material favor for a Jew and then a spiritual one. In our conversations, we spoke a lot about topics that preoccupied us.

To be continued


R’ Rafi Shuval has an amazing story of hashgacha pratis that has to do with his commander’s decision to leave him on the base in Tzfas and not send him to the border:

“Two years after I stopped going to the base, we were sitting and farbrenging in the Heichal Levi Yitzchok shul in Kiryat Chabad in Tzfas. Suddenly, a religious fellow walked in. He said he was passing by, heard us singing and so decided to come in. Nobody knew him and I had never seen him before, nor did I see him again. He was not a resident of the neighborhood.

“As Chassidim are wont to do, we told miracle stories and stories of hashgacha pratis. The man sat there and listened, hanging on to our every word. He finally offered to tell a miracle story that he experienced during the Reserve duty he did in Lebanon. Everybody gave him their attention.

“He said that one Thursday, after two weeks of service, it was his turn to go home for Shabbos. He had prepared to leave when a state of emergency was announced and all soldiers were ordered to remain at their posts and could not go home. On Friday, many soldiers who had planned on spending Shabbos with their families, waited impatiently to see whether the alert would be canceled. It was finally canceled a few hours before Shabbos and yet he decided to leave anyway. He arrived home a minute before Shabbos. He realized what the miracle was on Sunday, when he returned to base.

“Hezbollah terrorists had locked in on the base where he was serving and some mortars had landed on the caravan that was used as a shul. The entire structure was full of shrapnel. He knew that if he had remained on base, he would certainly have spent the entire Shabbos in that caravan…

“That is what the stranger told us. I was curious and began to question him. I asked when this incident had occurred and at which post. His answers made chills go down my spine. It was precisely the same post on Har Dov that I was supposed to be at… Who knows what the Rebbe saved me from?”


Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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